Singer-guitarist-songwriter Colin Meloy of the Decemberists opened his band’s first New York show in four years, at the Beacon Theater on April 6th, the same way the group re-entered the rock & roll labor force on its new album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol): with the gratitude and warning in the opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” “We know, we know we belong to you/We know you built your lives around us,” Meloy sang in a clarion voice, alone at first with acoustic guitar, acknowledging – and gently mocking – the emotional-ownership clause in every pop-stardom relationship. Still, Meloy insisted, as the rest of the band walked on and joined in, “We had to change some.”
Frankly, the Decemberists, who went on hiatus after a 10-year run and the freak Number One triumph of 2011’s The King Is Dead, haven’t been gone long enough for their current burst of action to qualify as comeback or overhaul. At the Beacon, Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen (assisted by singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor) were in reassuringly strong form and ebullient mood, less like a band reunited than one renewed and delighted simply to be back at work. “I am the remedy to your heart,” Meloy promised in “Cavalry Captain,” the second song of the night and one of seven pulled from the new record. He also sang this, in the R.E.M.-ish-guitar charge of “Make You Better” – “I needed you to make me feel better,” affirming that earlier conceit with more plaintive urgency.
Suites and Anthems
At a junction when many bands would go historical with reservation, the Decemberists were generous and narratively sly in their retrospection, jumping out of the jangle in the King hit “Calamity Song” to the prayer and small pleasures in “Grace Cathedral Hill” from their first full-length album, 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts. Later, the group followed the extended bloodletting and prog-rock turmoil of “The Island” from 2006’s The Crane Wife with an obscure deep breath, the 2004 B-side “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” Meloy’s portrait of a metropolitan succubus reeking of “burnt cocaine” and “garbled vomit on the shore.”
The huge, dramatic helping from the Decemberists’ long-form peak, 2009’s The Hazards of Love, was the show’s highpoint. Meloy excels at length as a storyteller, lacing his complex, narrative impulses with the subtle, emotional dynamite in archaic language and syntax. But he is a literary straight cat with Britpop smarts – at one point, during a Hazards singalong, Meloy inserted the chorus hook and lyrics from Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” – and a band of elastic, instrumental facility and an acute sense of flourish. Funk’s precise, pungent commentary on guitar, pedal steel and bouzouki and Conlee’s wide keyboard library of moods and colors put vital breath and body on Meloy’s long hauls. The Decemberists are also spirited, effective miniaturists; they packed the West Side Story in “O Valencia” into a cherry-red Corvette, then put a hard, even pedal to the meddle.
That times have changed more than the Decemberists was quietly pressed home in the first song of the encore: “12/17/12,” Meloy’s despairing reaction on the new album to the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. He sang it alone against a spare rhythm from Moen, in a voice stricken by the weight of grief yet quietly firm with stubborn wonder (“What a terrible world, what a beautiful world”). That the Decemberists have not forgotten the great fun they had going forward, before their hiatus, was evident in their return to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” from 2005’s Picaresque. Conlee played the wronged mother with hammy anguish, Meloy did high kicks like a Russian-folk-dance Rockette and everyone pretended to be swallowed by a cheesy cut-out whale – much bigger than I remember from previous tours – that looked like the band stole it from the props department of a high-school drama club.
“We’re not so starry-eyed anymore,” Meloy confessed early in the evening, in “Make You Better.” That may be the change. But it hasn’t taken his band too far from home.